Friday, May 17, 2013

Expand Your Mind

Overheard in a bookstore a few days ago:

“Oh, I don’t want to buy that.”
“Why not, you love Author X.”
“Aye, but its no’ the right character. I don’t know why authors try and change what they’re writing. They should just stick to the one thing.”

Its often been a bugbear of mine about writing - particularly in the modern age - that authors get stuck, pigeonholed, genrefied and branded. That they become known for one thing and one thing only. As good a writer as Rankin is, when people hesitate over his new book because it might not be a Rebus, there’s something wrong, trusting the character over the writer. Or when people refuse to pick up Stuart MacBride’s Halfhead because its “science fiction”.

Are we, as readers, limiting ourselves?

Are writers, as a whole, being limited?

Its an interesting question. In reading recent biographies of Raymond Chandler, what comes up time and again is his desire to write a book that it not a mystery novel (he comes close with The Long Goodbye, but its interesting that he requires Marlowe to write the novel, almost as though he has become so intertwined with the character that he cannot escape him). He loves the form, but he wants to try and escape it, too. To tell other kinds of stories. Tom Hiney’s biography briefly mentions his interest in SF at one point, although his description of the genre does come close to parody, so perhaps its as well we didn’t see that story.

I do think that some writers are being limited by being pigeonholed in genre. One of the reasons Iain Banks remains an interesting writer was that he mixed up genres so much. And got away with it. He is proof that a writer can in the modern world break free of expectations. But he remains the exception rather than the rule.

A writer acquaintance used to try and mix other genres into mystery, but his editors always diluted it down to create something that was less than it could have been. An attempt to create a horror novel was, for example, toned down to become Agatha Christie’s “And Then There Were None” with a hardboiled edge. Because the genre elements that were not generally deemed to mix with crime were considered too much for an audience to cope with. Personally, I’d love to see what they could have done with the full freewheeling use of the horror elements they were looking to use.

I also think that as a reader, its fun to defy your own expectations occasionally, to read something entirely different. And to be surprised by your favourite authors. One of the reasons you loved them in the first place was that you did not know what to expect from them from page to page. But that can’t last forever. If an author doesn’t mix things up, then how can you ever bve surprised and delighted by them again?

One of my favourite crime authors is George Pelecanos. He tends to shy away from series, instead writing sequences. He sticks with characters for two or three books before putting them down. He surprises us - and often himself, I’m sure - by keeping things fresh, even in a limited fashion, but making sure we don’t know what to expect the next time out. Its the same with Don Winslow; except Winslow often changes voice, style and attitude to suite whatever story it is he’s writing. There is nothing predictable about what he does. And that’s why he remains exciting.

Reader expectations are funny things. We get burned a lot by bad experiences in reading, and this can lead to a need for the safe, the middle ground, the predictable. But part of the joy of reading is discovery. Of new authors. New genres. New ideas.

Part of the joy of being a writer, too, is being able to explore new ideas. Being allowed the freedom to communicate different experiences to the reader. I’d always rather see an author try something new than retread the same ground. But then, maybe I’m daft that way. Maybe my view of the world is at odds with everyone elses.

I’ve always said, in regards to my own writing, that the McNee series will not last forever. That it is a sequence and that it does have an end. That is important to me as a reader and a writer. It stops me being trapped, and it stops my reader becoming complacent, looking for the same thing time and again. Of course, then that’s a gamble. Because if McNee really took off (hint: he hasn’t, although he is, I think, kind of a cult*) then would anything else I wrote be looked at with the same affection? Would readers follow me into other places, into other lives?

I would hope so.

But of course, in this business, no one knows anything.

And I guess that’s why I love it.

*that is not a spelling mistake


Dana King said...

Drives me crazy. Publishers are always complaining about finding something new, but nor from established authors, who may be in the best position to come up with something new because they're, you know, talented?

I'll admit to being guilty of this as a reader to an extent. (Not as much as I used to be.) So what? Are the editors afraid their author might find--gasp!--a new audience?

Anonymous said...

I think it's unfair of readers to demand the same thing over and over from a writer.

OTOH, I'd like to have that problem.